Is the removal of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi a good thing? The jury is still out. Unfortunately, the actions of the Egyptian military in trying to quell the continued disturbances and protests by Mr. Morsi’s followers are further muddying the waters.
Will the West lose Egypt as a point of stability? If the patience and understanding of the United States does not hold, the loss may be a significant one. The best solution is to use our military as the messengers of restraint and reason.
When the Egyptian military responded to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak and threw him out of office, they were hailed for siding with the people. When they did the same thing in response to even bigger protests against the Muslim Brotherhood president and removed Mr. Morsi, many in the United States balked.
Some say that the difference was that Mr. Mubarak was a dictator, and Mr. Morsi was democratically elected. True, he was elected, but his election was the last democratic action Mr. Morsi took. He was systematically dismantling the structures that might have allowed Egypt to continue down the road from that election to become a real democracy.
The Egyptian people instinctively recognized this. They weren’t willing to gamble by waiting for another election. They were (rightfully) concerned that if Mr. Morsi had been allowed to continue, it was likely that no future election would have ever been allowed to occur.
Interestingly, it appeared that the Obama administration agreed. It has refused to characterize the actions of the military as a coup, thereby preserving the relationship between the United States and Egypt — a relationship that is a pillar of stability in that turbulent region.
This course of action was both practical and brave, but the future hinges on what the military leaders do now. If they begin a transition back to a civilian system, the support will remain. However, if they start a repressive, heavy-handed campaign against their enemies, it will be difficult to support them for long.
The Muslim Brotherhood recognizes this. They feel that the military has robbed them of the chance to drive Egypt toward a future that they have defined. Mr. Morsi’s actions in office were completely motivated not by the will of the people, but by the radical vision of the Brotherhood. He was indeed elected by the people, but after, that he cared little for their input or desires. Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood saw their chance to change Egypt forever. The people first, then the military, said no.
Now the Muslim Brotherhood is doing its best to destabilize the country and force the military to overreact with violence and repression. If they take the bait, and there are indicators that they already are doing so, Egypt will suffer. Support and patience from the United States and other Western countries will dry up, and the military will become isolated. To whom will they turn? What will happen within Egypt?
America faces a critical time. For decades, our policy in the Middle East has rested on a base of peace between Egypt and Israel, and stability in the biggest Arab nation. If Egypt turns into a pre-Sept. 11 Afghanistan, it will be a disaster for the United States and for Israel. We cannot allow that to happen.
At the same time, we cannot stand by and accept systematic killings. U.S. influence must be brought to bear, coaxing the military to act responsibly and reasonably as they maintain order and begin the transition back to normalcy. Cutting off relations will not help and will, in fact, exacerbate the situation.
The American military has a great relationship with its Egyptian counterparts. Hundreds of exercises, thousands of officers graduating from U.S. schools, intelligence sharing and working against terrorists have all built the kind of connections that really mean something in a Middle Eastern culture. It is this relationship that should be utilized in this delicate situation.
The senior members of the uniformed services will be our most potent messengers. They should be deployed immediately. Department of State diplomats are fine, honorable people, but they do not have the bond that the Egyptian officers have with our own.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is holding open the door, but even he is not the right leader for this situation. The American tradition of political supremacy over the military speaks volumes, but in a way that is both subtle and convincing.
Mr. Obama should not send men in suits to preach to the Egyptian generals. He should send our own uniformed leaders to speak as brothers. This will be a much more compelling and ultimately more effective way to encourage restraint against the Muslim Brotherhood and respect for civilian rule.